In their first year of existence, the Vegas Golden Knights have shocked the National Hockey League by making it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. The Golden Knights’ over-the-top pregame shows have been perhaps even more stunning. Before each home game, the franchise stages a set piece centering on fake medieval warfare, featuring a knight-champion who does brief and victorious battle with foes on skates.
The shows got more complex as the season wore on; by Monday, before the first game of the Stanley Cup Final, the spectacle came complete with “flaming” arrows shot by female archers, a castle that looks to have been constructed out of papier-mâché, and, inexplicably, drummers wearing futuristic light-up goggles. It’s all very Vegas—and it’s great.
The shows have gone viral, and we will hopefully get another spectacular one when the Golden Knights play the Washington Capitals in Game 2 on Wednesday night. (Vegas leads the series 1–0.) Hotly anticipating a new chapter in the saga, I called on Kevin Uhalde, a historian who studies and teaches popular medievalism at Ohio University, to talk to me about misused catapults, sword fighting on skates, and whether or not the Golden Knights are actually ronin.
Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Rebecca Onion: It’s completely ridiculous to think about historical accuracy when you’re watching a hilarious bit of pop culture medievalism like this, right? Should we just be putting the whole concept of accuracy aside to enjoy these shows?
Kevin Uhalde: I often distinguish between accuracy and authenticity, or realism, with the idea that you need some accuracy to have any sense of authenticity. Attention to detail matters up to a point, but for most people it’s the smallest part of what matters, and that certainly applies to medievalism.
One thing that’s not an “inaccuracy,” because I don’t think they’re trying to be accurate, but knights, historically, would have been on horseback, and there are obviously no horses on the ice, so that’s kind of out the door.
Another thing is that knights were generally not rogues. There’s either a sovereign, a liege lord—there’s someone that knights are following. Watching this, I thought of, in feudal Japan, the example of the ronin, the masterless samurai. In Arthurian material, there are some examples of wandering knights. But it’s really contradictory to the very notion of what it means to be a knight, just like being on foot is contradictory to the notion of being a knight.
I looked up the helmet design, because I didn’t know whether it was supposed to be an English, Viking-era, Saxon, or Scandinavian helmet, and I did think, “Well, it looks a lot like a late Roman helmet, or maybe some sort of Greek or Spartan helmet.” I thought it was really interesting to see that Ken Boehlke [of the Golden Knights fan site SinBin] had this whole article saying, No, it’s really a knight’s helmet! I know you think it’s a Spartan helmet, but it’s really a specific medieval helmet from 15th-century Italy!
That was a great defensive internet moment.
[The slippage between Spartans and the medieval period] makes it clear that what they want out of the medieval context is the martial or military part of chivalry. What you’re left with are some warrior motifs that are recognizably medieval because of the armor and the keep with the turret. It’s clearly medieval, but it could be any martial culture. There’s nothing wrong with that! That’s clearly the most relevant thing to competitive sport, and especially one like hockey that’s known, at least in part, for being violent.
Historical slippage is always part of popular medievalism, whether you’re talking about Renaissance fairs, which are vaguely medieval and Renaissance-y, or even talking about medievalism in literature gong back a couple centuries. There’s a great tradition of just picking and choosing whatever elements you want.
There’s a negative part of me watching these shows and thinking, ugh, it’s so depressing how we strip mine history for broad symbols. But you’re saying that’s been happening with medievalism for a long time.
Yeah! There’s nothing strange or new about it, in and of itself, and I like the extra-messy medievalism where people are mixing up different stuff—really mixing up their own notion of what is medieval. There are at least two different kinds of medievalism going on in this one. The most obvious one is the chivalry—which is, when I teach anywhere from 50–100 students a course in medieval history in film and literature, chivalry is what everyone says medievalism is.
But it’s also pulling from this dark primitivism. That’s what clearly informs Game of Thrones and some of the more recent movies to come out, like the most recent Arthur movie from last summer, where the atmosphere is very dark and it’s brutal. That’s its own version of medievalism that goes back to the Renaissance, where they refer to the medieval period as the Dark Ages.
And that’s in this show as well. Especially in the opening where the sort of hooded figure comes out with a lantern and everything’s dark. It’s got a primitive feeling; the guy is fighting off these forces of evil that happen to be Toronto or Winnipeg.
Those horrible Canadians. I liked the opening part too, because there was a way they were enlisting the audience to listen, and it seemed to be similar to how the audience might hear an epic—analogous to medieval storytelling.
When they say things like, “In Chapter 1, we saw the fall of the kings … in Chapter 2, the knights feasted on shark … ” they’re spinning out an epic, taking us on a journey.
There was some profile I was reading that mentioned that one of the people putting on the shows had worked for World Wrestling Entertainment. And he said something like, I learned at that job that you just need to make good and evil extremely obvious. You can see that in the inequity between the champion of the Golden Knights and the villain–bad guy from the other team, who is very easily vanquished in their little battle.
In actual medieval chivalric literature, there’s much, much more gray in there. But certainly our idea of the Middle Ages—our medievalism—is all about light and dark and good and evil, from Tolkien to everything else. There’s no ambiguity.
The use of the flaming arrows and catapults—how did that become the go-to visual indicator of medieval combat?
I’m not a military historian, but I think what most historians would tell you about catapults is that they’re used against fortifications, not against people. For a lot of reasons. They’re not mobile. They would be constructed outside of a fortified city to batter the walls, but the way you see them used most often in movies or in this show is being used against people.
The flaming arrows, they just look good! And it’s hard to see arrows otherwise.
I really liked the fact that this catapult had a StubHub ad on it. If you were going to teach these shows in your class, how would you teach them?
I don’t know if there’s a lot to learn, except that medievalism is so popular that you can almost not notice it. There seem to be ebbs and flows, and times when you see more of it around, and now is one of those times. I was just teaching the course on medieval history in film and literature in the spring, and toward the end, I realized that Bud Light had been running this ad series called “Dilly Dilly,” and it had been running since the fall, and it’s got a medieval king and knights, and they’re really funny. So we watched three or four of them in class. These Golden Knights shows run on the same principle as “Dilly Dilly,” where medievalism is something we can connect to without really thinking very deeply about.
Playing with this anachronism becomes really easy because we all have this little pool of signifiers to point toward.
Yes, and the thing about medievalism is that you get to have these violent references, to slaughtering your foes and eating them. It’s a degree of violence where it’s hard to imagine how they would stage that in a pregame show without putting it in some remote past.